Writing The Treatment
The treatment is your best friend. I would never do a job without one. It is your contract, it is your safety net, it lays out all of the important parameters so that there are as few misunderstandings as possible. A good treatment forces clarity between everyone involved and avoids the terrible scenario where a project is delivered to blank stares, anger, or objections that “this isn’t what we talked about”. Take it as a tool that helps keep you honest, accountable, protected, and helps develop your ideas with integrity.
Building on the client’s brief, a treatment restates some of the critical information and presents your creative idea. In the first round, it should present your concepts. Once a concept is approved, a revision will strip out the other ones and then develop your winning concept into a synopsis (if required) and then a script. Depending on the style of your company, this treatment could be put forward to the client or pasted into a deck, which is a PowerPoint or Keynote presentation. These can be ridiculously long, encompassing all kinds of information and the key creative proposition comprising only a small part. This format is usually reserved for clients that are outside of the industry and there is no agency intermediary, whereas with more closely connected clients you can provide a treatment that resembles a brief.
First, identify the client, writer and producer. You never know who will be looking at this document, and it’s important that they know who is responsible for it.
Clarify the objective of the film. It’s extremely important that you narrow the focus of the film down to one purpose. Fight off any calls to have a laundry list because it just doesn’t work, the movie will end up being scattered and the audience will not receive the multiple messages. If having multiple messages is irreconcilable, try to suggest making a series of films and each one could have a singular focus on the given objective — but still, to maintain the coherence of a series, you would want one over-riding objective that is common to all of the films and then a series of secondary ones that modulate between iterations.
Identify the audience. Nothing is successfully written for all audiences of all ages because there is very little that all audiences of all ages have in common. There is a core audience that you should have in mind, and various ancillary audiences that could have an overlapping interest. You have to target for the core and avoid alienating the ancillary, but you can’t write for all people all the time. These are the people that you will imagine vividly and try to sculpt a concept that you think speaks to them.
Clarify your deliverables before you get too far, as it’s very important to know if you’re making one fifteen second video or thirty-five sixty second videos. Is there a subtitled version to be done, or an alternate language that needs to be shot? People tend to mention these things very, very late in the game, which can be a financially or creatively difficult situation. Give your later self a high-five and get it down now.
Indicate the budget range so that anyone who reads the treatment understands the scope of the production. It can serve as a good reminder of the context and flag any concerns about the financial ability to execute the concept.
Detail the method of distribution, as this can affect duration, framing aspect ratio and the audio. This can sometimes trigger multiple deliverables, as framing and graphics that fit a rectangular video may cause problems in a square one.
Give timelines so that there is clarity of how quickly this must be approved, executed and delivered.
Declare any mandatories. Are there any elements that must be included or excluded, such as talent, a location, an event, an interview or animation? This can be really critical to your creative, as a cooking video that is overtop the assembly of a recipe in the “tasty” style that doesn’t feature your celebrity chef’s face (because you didn’t know the chef was involved) won’t go over very well.
The ‘tone’ and ‘look and feel’ may need to be consistent for all of your concepts, in which case they should be detailed here. If these vary for each concept, then be sure to move these elements to accompany each one.
Detail the tone of the video, which is the overall sensibility. Is it funny, aspirational or serious? Are there brand characteristics you should stick to, like adventurousness or light-heartedness? It’s a good idea to review brand guidelines if they’re available, so check any brand documents for clues. If you’re lucky, they’ll have something to work with, and if you’re not, they’ll be bland, generic, predictable texts that don’t give you much to go on, but may indicate a general middle-of-the-road style of consensus at the client.
The look and feel or visual style of the video is important to describe, as there are lots of ways to imagine the same thing and you’re trying to bring everyone to the same place. Image an interview–based piece. Is it people sitting against a seamless backdrop looking into the lens? Or are they walking and talking to an off-camera director in the cinema verité style? Are they formal and respectful, or casual and relaxed? Is it boldly colourful or black and white? If you have multiple concepts, then this information should be contained in each.
Present your concepts. Name each spot — this gives a focus to the idea, immediately setting the tone and perspective, and gives a great way to remember it. Be sure to outline each of them briefly and in a way that explains how and why it works, not a play by play of how the script will function. You’re selling the idea here, not necessarily the execution.
I would caution you against presenting the one idea that you really want to do — expecting the world to recognise its genius and fast-track it through production — and offering a second, safer backup idea that you despise as an obviously-never-to-be-chosen alternative. Seems like a great way to guarantee your good idea gets made, no? It’s not worth it. Every time I’ve heard of someone doing this, the client picks the terrible idea. Every time. And then you spend the rest of this job developing something you regret. How good a job do you think you’ll do with this enthusiasm?
Here is where we’ll break for the moment, continuing next week to discuss using visual references, submitting your treatment, and developing shot lists and storyboards.